Touring the state: Daines talks wildfire, more during Belgrade stop

While Congress is in recess, Sen. Steve Daines is traveling the state discussing topics from wildfires to the Endangered Species Act to gun violence.

At Bridger Aerospace in Belgrade on Tuesday, Daines, a Bozeman Republican, spoke about a bill he plans to introduce this fall aimed at reducing wildfire risk. The legislation, which he will cosponsor with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, will include efforts like more aggressively thinning trees near roads and trails because he said most human-caused wildfires start within a half mile of roads or trails.

“Either we need to better manage our forests or our forests are going to manage us,” he said. 

Daines also met with Bridger Aerospace leaders to learn about new wildfire-fighting technologies including drones that can monitor and track wildfires more quickly and safely than firefighters can. Daines said he supports finding ways to use new technologies — like drones — to fight wildfires more effectively and less expensively.

When he returns to Congress, Daines said he will also focus on the Restore Our National Parks Act, a bill that aims to address the $12 billion backlog of infrastructure projects at the country’s national parks. He said he is working with park officials and a bipartisan group of lawmakers to develop a list of projects, such as trail updates and road maintenance, to present to Congress for funding.

In Belgrade, Daines voiced his support of President Donald Trump’s announced changes to the way his administration carries out the Endangered Species Act. The changes, which Trump released on Monday, include allowing the government to conduct economic assessments and to disregard the impacts of climate change when deciding whether to protect a species.

“The Endangered Species Act is like a 40-year-old ranch pickup. It once served a useful purpose, but it needs a few repairs,” Daines said. “And I think that’s what we’re seeing right now. … These revisions will keep us focused on recovering the species and then celebrating that success when it happens.”

Conservation groups and at least 10 state attorneys general have come out against the changes. In an emailed statement sent Monday, Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, characterized the changes as “gutting the ESA” and said they prove the administration “has no interest in protecting wildlife or America’s outdoor heritage.”

In response to recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Trump said he supports strengthening background check laws. A few days after the president’s announcement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would consider having the Senate take up gun legislation like background checks and red flag laws, which allow state courts to remove firearms temporarily from people believed to be a danger to themselves or others.

After McConnell spoke out, Daines said in a prepared statement to the Chronicle, “As a nation, we must come together, Republicans and Democrats, and get to the root of what caused these two very sick men to commit these evil acts and identify solutions that will actually reduce acts of domestic terrorism and preserve our freedoms.”

At an event in Missoula on Monday, Daines said he doesn’t support expanded background checks or red flag laws, according to Montana Public Radio. A red flag law was introduced in the state Legislature for the first time this winter and died in committee.